When I look at Johan van Mullem’s paintings, I’m reminded of that Bob Dylan phrase “smoke rings of my mind”. For the Belgian artist’s instantly recognisable works are ethereal evocations of his subconscious, dreamily configured as abstracts within a barely recognisable face. The artist pours his emotions on to the canvas, almost peering inside his head, and using expressive brushstrokes to create something striking, haunting and mysterious.
His new exhibition at Unit London entitled Reverence comprises mostly new works that address themes relating to the show’s title: respect, approbation, worship, awe and adoration. It includes the eponymous Reverence, a monumental eleven metre pencil drawing that takes up most of a wall. It’s his 18th solo show in the last decade including New York, Paris, Brussels and his fourth in London.
In his first exhibition here seven years ago, though his style was already well established, his works were mainly sepia coloured and untitled. Now, he has given them an identity and has added an array of brighter colours to create more impact. He says he had to spend some time learning about colours and the effects they engender. Even seemingly monochrome paintings are blends of different colours needed to create depth. As he explained to me, his themes have developed too.
“The link between the paintings here in this show is about humanity, not just individuals. My work before was more about faces, not portraits, but more figurative work. I think here it’s another dimension with other perspectives. It’s another way of seeing the human being – the human being within humanity, within the story itself, in the story of creation because I think every moment, every second is a new creation.”
The introspective nature of Johan van Mullem’s work stemmed from an unhappy, peripatetic childhood in which his family moved with his Belgian diplomat father from country to country. He was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and spent his formative years in Tunisia. Art became the only way he could express his true inner feelings.
He had no formal artistic training as his parents felt an artist was an unsuitable profession for their son, even though his father and grandfather before him both painted. When he gave up a job as a city planner in Brussels to become a full-time artist, he found a contentment he hadn’t experienced before. He ascribed then to the idea that you had to suffer in order to create. It’s a view he doesn’t share today.
“I’ve totally changed my mind about that. I work every day so if I’m tired, not tired, energetic, depressed, sad, happy, I work and it doesn’t change…you don’t have the need to be in a special mood to create. It’s something that’s inside. It just has to go outside and I find it very interesting to work every day and you can constantly progress.”
The art historian Christian Levett, who has curated this exhibition, has suggested that African masks may have been an influence on van Mullem since they symbolise both protection and disguise. He also sees echoes of artists down the ages from Goya, Rembrandt, Vermeer to Francis Bacon. If this is true, the artist believes it to be entirely subconscious since he has no particular reference points.
His style is very much his own. His technical aptitude and draftmanship is used to create subtle gradations of tone and colour known in the art world by the Italian term sfumato. Van Mullem uses oil-based etching inks. He used to paint on wood which meant he had to work quickly before the ink dried. A shift to canvas means he has more time for his “meditations”.
He has taken to “framing” his works with symbols and shapes. Sometimes these are what he calls “accidents”, experiments from taking risks with his brushwork. Then there is whatever tumbles from his subconscious. His pieces sometimes have an unfinished look making them even more undefinable. Others have a certain deconstructed aspect to them – you’re not quite sure if something is leaving or arriving. It hints at regeneration.
“We are constantly in transformation. We are losing our skin every day and we have something new.”
The centrepiece of the exhibition, Reverence, took six months in the making. It’s pencil on paper and consists of six different pictures, all drawn with no pre-preparation. It tells the story of man’s evolution from birth to death with various stages in between. Unlike the other pictures, it’s mostly figurative with a quasi-religious feel to it. There are no women portrayed which he explains away by saying he is portraying mankind rather than a man.
“We all have the same conditions: we are born, we have eyes, we have a nose, we can see, we can listen, we know we’re going to die, so it’s the same fundamental story. Even though we are all different, we are also all the same.”
At a time of global discord and rancour, Reverence is a message of union and togetherness that makes for a refreshing affirmation of the human spirit.
Reverence is showing at Unit London, 3 Hanover Square, W1S 1HD until 13 April.
All images are ©Johan van Mullem and courtesy of the gallery.